The economic settings then and now run parallel, if not in severity, then in breadth, making the Acting Company’s performance of John Steinbeck’s stark and simple story “Of Mice and Men” all the more timely.
Written as a novel in 1937 and adapted as a play just two years later, this piece by Steinbeck tells the story of two migrant workers, George and Lennie, who dream of making enough money to buy a place of their own in a time when dreams were scarce. Lennie’s mental disabilities remove his capacity to understand his physical strength, but enable him to embrace the ordinary dreams that sustain himself and George, his best friend and guardian.
In Friday’s performance at WSU’s Jones Theater in Pullman, Lennie will be played by Christopher Michael McFarland, a graduate of the Yale School of Drama. McFarland, who entered theater through playwriting and found his sweet spot in acting, brings a fresh perspective to the well-known character who is at once lovable and pitiable.
“I felt it was important to play Lennie as an individual,” said McFarland, who avoids attaching a clinical label to Lennie’s disability.
McFarland naturally possesses some of Lennie’s “gentle giant” qualities and worked to develop the character’s childish impulses.
As the play opens, Lennie’s only recognized value is his oversized, hard-working body. But what seems a weakness — his mental frailty — becomes a mechanism through which hope is channeled, effecting not only himself and George, but the other characters as well.
McFarland recognizes hope as a central theme of the play. The set, the plot, the characters show the stark hardness of poverty. The men on the ranch work hard, they keep to themselves, they avoid confrontation and shut down to survive. It’s when George and Lennie come with their dreams that life begins to bloom.
“It just takes a little bit of hope,” said McFarland. “When Candy, Curley’s wife, and the others hear about their plans, they immediately jump on board the dream.”
What happens with the dream is another theme, one that carries its own message. Though times and situations have changed, modern audiences still find themselves in the story.
“There are recognizable characters,” McFarland says. “These aren’t kings and queens we’re dealing with.” Unlike some classic stories, the situations in “Of Mice and Men” are accessible: ordinary people with ordinary dreams.
“If you can tell them a story that lets them find the truth for themselves, they’re more likely to take it to heart,” said McFarland.
It is the power of story that drove Steinbeck to quickly adapt the novel into a play. Though his story was about the working masses, few of them could read or access the book. Theater was the storytelling medium of the time and through the play, Steinbeck was able to reach a wider audience who could go and see themselves on the stage.
Based in New York, the Acting Company tours to communities across American where live theater is limited or non-existent: more than 70 percent of their audiences have never before seen a play. Even in a cinematic era, live theater provides something a movie never can:
“It comes down to the live connection,” said McFarland. He describes how the actor is as dependent on the audience as the audience is on the actor. “A play is much more active. Anything could happen and there is a tension within that.”
if you go:
What: The Acting Company presents John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Jones Theatre in Daggy Hall, Washington State University, Pullman
Cost: $20 adults, $16 seniors, $12 students and youth, $10 WSU students with valid ID. Tickets are on sale through TicketsWest or at Daggy Hall two hours before the performance.